Film Review: Star Trek

Spoilers?  Eh … most likely.

George Kirk …. First Officer of the USS Kelvin dies to save the life of the crew in the face of a vastly superior spacecraft crewed by Romulans.

Among the survivors whom he buys time for are his wife in the throes of labor …. and his son whom he hears crying to life moments before he dies.  That son is to be named for his mother’s father: Jim.  Thus begins the romantic life of James T. Kirk.

This is the amazing pre-credits sequence of the film … it is intense and dramatic.  (It made me think about how Star Wars: Episode III ended with Luke’s birth;  here the birth scene is in the beginning).  You are introduced to a whole new look for Star Trek.  It actually looks like something that could be in our future … which is to say that there are elements that look like they should be there, and it doesn’t appear to be missing obvious things.  Rather than a suspended reality, there looks like a hypereality.  For this, I give kudos to the designers and JJ Abrams for bringing Trek out of its own universe and into ours.  Back to a bit of the story:

Jim Kirk grows to be intelligent, and incredibly reckless;  unable to respect authority.

Did I mention he’s a bit of a womanizer …..

So it is one night he is in an Iowa bar not far from a Starfleet facility when he hits on a young cadet who only gives him her last name:  Uhura.  A few cadets defend her honor, and Kirk gets the crap kicked out of him until Captain Pike arrives to save him.  Pike has researched the incident with the Kelvin, and worships at George Kirk’s altar.  He feels that Starfleet has gone soft, and that people like George Kirk are needed …. and that if Jim could be half the man his father was, and if has ever felt like he was destined for something better, now was the time to step up.

 As you can guess … he does, and thus is born (reborn) a legend.

This is a good film … not just a good Star Trek film, but a good film.  It might be best to discuss the elements of the film that are changed from the original series presentation.

1.  Spock and his dad … Ben Cross does a great job playing the stoic Sarek.  In the original series, Spock and his father were estranged for years (not reuniting until the episode Journey to Babel).  Here, the pair may not have the best relationship, but they are hardly estranged.  I didn’t think this was a big deal.

2.  A little word analogy:  Star Wars: Alderaan:: this film: Vulcan ….. talk about not seeing this coming … I knew there were going to be changes, but obliterating Vulcan and most of its citizens was not one that I thought anyone would ever do.  Talking about rewriting history!

3.  Uhura-Spock relationship …. in the original series, it is hinted a bit at times that Uhura had a bit of a crush on Spock.  Here, Spock is one of Uhura’s teachers at Starfleet Academy.  There is something more than a crush.  The only thing I had a problem with was this …. not that Uhura was finally developed as a character (this was a major plus in this film) … but how Spock responded to it.  This was the only change I found objectionable.

4.  You finally get to see Kirk take the Kobayashi Maru test … this is a major piece of lore that first came up in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan …. that all cadets training to become officers must take a simulation test which is impossible to win … to teach potential captains that there are consequences when you lose, and that you had better be able to handle situations where you aren’t successful.  Kirk famously finds a way to win.  So big a deal, there was actually a novel written about how the other characters handled the test and learned to deal with defeat.  This is an important point of the pot in this film, and you get to see Kirk finally defeat the “no-win scenario”, much to the chagrin of the man who programmed the test.

4.  Out: Engine room.  In:  Engine ROOM … a definite improvement over every single incarnation of Trek:  there was some belief that the entire ship could be powered and controlled from a 1-2 story room with square footage smaller than my living room and kitchen.  Modern aircraft carriers can’t do that … why would advanced antimatter powered starships need so little room?  Finally, someone gets the engineering right and gives the engines and power equipment a VAST amount of space.

5.  Transporter effect:  cooler!

6.  The actors … all of them … walk the fine line of paying homage to the original performances, the essence of the characters, while also taking ownership themselves.  Karl Urban really captures the essence of McCoy …. part paranoia, part loyal friend who has the guts to help you when you need to be helped, and the guts to chew you out when you need that …. Simon Pegg and Anton Yelchin (Scotty and Checkov) really pay wonderful homage to the performances originally rendered by James Doohan and Walter Koenig).  Zachary Quinto (Spock), Chris Pine (Kirk) have a tighter line to walk, but also have their character written with slight differences than in the original series.  John Cho (Sulu) and Zoe Saldana (Uhura) are excellent, but are the most differently written from their original series character;  which is to say that they are finally fleshed out a bit more than in the past (the issues were not in the performances of the original actors, but in the original writing or production …. these characters were given so little to do … now they are).  Saldana’s Uhura, in particular, is given quite a bit more to do than just say “hailing frequencies open”.  It was a good step forward!

7.  Ben Cross and Winona Ryder do great jobs as Spock’s parents …. though I id not care for the MFTV film version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Ben Cross’ turn as Captain Nemo showed stoicism that was perfect for the elder Vulcan.  Ryder brings her usual sense of intelligence and warmth without going overboard;  perfectly believable for a human mother in a world dominated by logic.  The makeup on Ryder made her almost unrecognizably old.

8.  Leonard Nimoy gives the pointed ears one final spin … the plot certainly does involve time travel, and I won’t go into too much detail as far as that is concerned, but our older, original Spock, plays a major part in the film, and does so well.  He is older in this film (his entrance into the plot comes sometime after the events of  The Next Generation, DS9, and Voyager), and he is a bit more emotional.  It is hard to decide which was better:  older Spock meeting young Kirk, or meeting his younger self.

9.  The villain is not the strongest villain we’ve ever seen … Eric Bana plays Nero, a Romulan on a mission to not only put history in the blender, but seek a very particular form of revenge on one person.  The first time we see him, he is great.  After that, he just doesn’t seem as threatening … he seems very beatable compared to other villains we’ve seen in Trek films (the Borg Queen, Shinzon, Khan).  I cannot tell if the breakdown was in the writing, the acting, or the production, but this was the one weak link I saw in terms of characters.

10.  The humor is good.  One thing that never seemed to happen in the original series was humor at Kirk’s expense (and given a character with that level of chutzpah, you would think that would be funny).  This is corrected here.  Scotty and Bones have their usual moments of humor (yes, there is one “I’m a doctor, not a _______” lines, as well as an “I’m giving her all she’s got”.  The writers and production staff knew  that there were things that should be kept.

In short, I suspect that this ended up going a little bit the way of Battlestar Galactica.  JJ Abrams chose to keep the best parts;  maybe even some nostalgia that wasn’t the best but wouldn’t get in the way, and replace the rest.  In some cases, there were things that had never been included in the original series, but had been hinted at in the long series of novels or in the animated series (Spock being teased as a boy;  the source of McCoy’s nickname “Bones”.

As I noted in an earlier posting about mythology, there are entire broad parts of the original series that were thrown out.

A.  In the episode A Piece of the Action, Kirk and co. are on a planet run by aliens who have modeled their society on 1920s era Chicago gangsters.  Kirk gets into a car, and can’t make it work because he has never driven a car.  That is clearly not the case, as he does a good job driving his stepfather’s antique car as a young kid.

B.  It is established in the series that Kirk did served as a young lieutennant for a few years on the USS Republic and USS Farragut.  This was a key point in the episode Obsession in which Captain Kirk encounters a creature that killed a large number of his crew on the Farragut, and he gets the opportunity to prevent any more deaths by the creature …. or revenge.  In the film, Kirk goes from cadet to first officer to captain.

C.  Perhaps most importantly, Captain Pike was depicted as the first captain of the Enterprise (which he is), and that he and Spock served together on the Enterprise for years, including a faithful trip to the planet Talos IV where Pike is captured by aliens who can make him live any fantasy or nightmare.  A dying race, they need a new breeding stock.  Pike is able to escape, and the Federation, too frightened to ever allow anyone to return and become captured for a stud farm, passes General Order #7:  visit Talos IV, and you are faced with execution;  the last piece of capital punishment left in the Federation.  This film establishes that it is the Enterprise‘s maiden voyage, so these events also never happen.  These events are the plot outline of one of the best episodes of the original series, The Menagerie.

D.  Another outstanding episode of the original series is The Conscience of the King, in which Kirk confronts an old Shakespearean actor who may be a former colony governor who murdered 4,000 colonists, including parts of Kirk’s family (Kirk was one of the survivors).  This is not alluded to, but it seems to suggest that it never did happen.

Thus …. Star Trek officially becomes mythology.

I’m not sure a sequel is in the works yet, but the team has brought Star Trek into the realm of mythology:  the details, places, things, and names may all change a little of a lot, but the essence will survive intact.  This is a film very worthy of being seen on a big screen!

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3 Responses to Film Review: Star Trek

  1. Alan P says:

    Dammit. I can’t read this post until I see the film. May not be until next weekend.

  2. RJDS says:

    Finally saw this….not just a good Trek movie, but a good movie overall, no doubt. If the missus likes it (and she has never really seen any Trek at all prior to this), then the movie did its job. Mr. Egan, the post is pretty spot-on, and J.J. has got some interesting work ahead of him, should he choose to accept the mission….to boldly go where no one has gone before, in an alternating way of course!

  3. Alan P says:

    Finally saw the film tonight. Not sure how I feel about it, but the writers did a good job of explaining away any discrepancies with the original – Nero’s appearance and conflict with the USS Kelvin changes the timeline, and from now on the audience will be experiencing Star Trek from the alternate timeline.

    I’m curious to see how Spock interferes – does he disappear? Is it logical to apply his knowledge of future technology to the benefit of those “in the past”? (What in the hell verb tenses am I supposed to be using???)

    I think you’re right about the villain. But it wasn’t that he was particularly threatening or powerful, but rather that he brought back with him an incredible piece of technology that was tough to defend against.

    What the hell, I think I liked it!

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